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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery
Park Square Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's review of Ghost the Musical

E. J. Subkoviak, Austene Van and Derek Dirlam
Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma
The world premiere production of Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery now on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre is my introduction to the world of Nero Wolfe, an epicurean private detective created by Rex Stout. Starting in 1934 with the publication of "Fer-de-Lance," the prolific Stout wrote 47 Nero Wolfe books, several of them collections, with many best sellers and awards bestowed upon the author. His last was published posthumously in 1985, ten years after Stout's death.

Remarkably, the only one of his works adapted to the stage was Christmas Party, presented by Teatro del Stabile del Giallo in Rome in 2009, until three years ago when Park Square, under the aegis of its Mystery Writers Producer's Club, commissioned playwright Joseph Goodrich to write a Nero Wolfe play, based on one of the earliest works, "The Red Box." The results were received with cheers, and now Goodrich and Wolfe are both back at the Park Square, generating a whole new salvo of cheers.

What a delightful world Nero Wolfe's is. Like all legendary sleuths, he has a razor-sharp, case-cracking mind, able to detect the significance of the most minute detail and put together disjointed bits of information to come up with a lucid conclusion. Unlike most, he manages to do this without ever leaving his elegant Manhattan brownstone home, which also serves as his office. Here he is attended by Archie Goodwin, his young and handsome right-hand man, who acts as Nero's secretary, emissary, and field investigator. Archie and Nero are ideally complementary, with Archie's nervous energy, eye for the ladies, and preference for a tall glass of cold milk balancing Nero's calm demeanor, celibate existence, and penchant for fine wine and liquor. Nero's butler Fritz also is on hand, announcing the gourmand fare about to be served at each meal, menus to rival the finest of dining establishments.

Might as Well Be Dead begins with a businesswoman, Mrs. Herrold, bursting into Nero's office without an appointment, and insisting to Archie that she see the great detective. She has traveled from Saint Paul, Minnesota (the hometown connection was greeted warmly, but does nothing to limit the play's broader appeal), to ask Nero to find her son Paul, missing for many years after being accused of a crime back home, whose innocence has just recently been proven. She had already tried the Missing Persons Bureau, hired a private detective, and posted notices in the newspapers, all to no avail. Nero Wolfe is her last hope, and she is prepared to pay his considerable fees.

Nero has Archie place a notice in the newspaper aimed at drawing Paul Herrold out, coded by using his initials, P.H. That prompts the wrath of Police Inspector Cramer, one of Nero's frequent opponents, who mistakenly thought the detective was interfering with a murder case he had just wrapped up, convicting Peter Hays of killing a real estate tycoon. The two cases become entwined, involving the deceased realtor's gorgeous widow Suki; his friend and sometimes business partner Pat Degan; two couples who are friends of Suki's, whom Nero aptly describes as "fractious"; and the deceased's bohemian secretary Delia. The clues are dropped, though it's never really clear what is a clue and what isn't, until the brilliant Nero Wolfe puts it all together, as anyone familiar with the genre knows he will.

Goodrich's writing is as sharp and entertaining as his hero, no doubt drawing much wit from Rex Stout's original, but adding some of his own as well. Peter Moore directs the production stylishly, making each character both a type and a believable person, allowing the humor to flow naturally from the characters' interactions while maintain a constant edge of suspense till the mystery is solved. Great, wonderful fun!

E. J. Subkoviak is back from his turn as Nero Wolfe in The Red Box, and he is ideal in the part. His physical girth is a solid match for Nero, his delight in food, drink and literature seem genuine, along with his affection for the orchids grown in his greenhouse, and his sharp wit is unforced. Archie, Nero's partner in crime busting, is played by Derek Dirlam, giving what should be a break-out performance for the young actor. He captures Archie's energy, his intelligence, and the soft heart he tries to keep secret. Dirlam has boyish good looks and a lanky frame that contrast neatly with Subkoviak's jowled Nero. The chemistry between the two actors is terrific.

Also returning from The Red Box is Michael Paul Levin as Inspector Cramer, and he is terrific. He captures the inspector's tough-as-nails routine that descends into total exasperation when up against Nero, his bombastic performance generating laughs throughout. All of the other actors play multiple roles, and all do fine work. Noteworthy among them is Austene Van as Mrs. Herrold and as one of the "fractious" friends; Jim Pounds as that friend's bull-headed husband and Fritz, the butler; Am'Ber Montgomery as Suki Malloy, a widow with her share of secrets; and Marisa B. Tejeda as Delia Brand.

The setting designed by Rick Polenek is perfection, Nero's well-appointed office, with a massive, carved desk for himself and a smaller, functional desk for Archie. On either side of the stage, pools of light and balconies provide other locales, such as Suki's home, the prison where Tom Hays is being held, and a Greenwich Village club where Archie locates Delia. Sara Wilcox's costumes completely suit each character, including stylish apparel for Suki and her smart set friends. Michael P. Kittel uses his lighting design to draw our attention to wherever it is needed, and Anita Kelling's sound design amps up the goings on.

Now that I had such a thoroughly good time at Might as Well Be Dead, I will be on the lookout for return productions of The Red Box (psst, it's scheduled to be done by Phipps Center for the Arts in nearby Hudson, WI, next June), and hopefully Mr. Goodrich may try his hand at more tales of Rex Stout's delightful invention, Nero Wolfe. My hats off to Park Square's Mystery Writers Producer's Club for supporting this work, and to everyone involved for delivering it with such skill, wit and affection.

Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery continues on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre through July 30, 2017. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $24.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance (cash only). For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to

Writer: Joseph Goodrich, adapted from the novel by Rex Stout; Director: Peter Moore; Assistant Director: Sophie Peyton; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Sarah Wilcox; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties: Design Robert "Bobbie" Smith; Fight Choreographer: Brandon Ewald; Choreographer: Austene Van; Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Stage Managers: Charles Fraser and Samantha Diekman.

Cast: Derek Dirlam (Archie Goodwin), Brandon Ewald (Peter Hays/Johnny Keems), Brain P. Joyce (Albert Breyer/Ralph Arkoff - Wednesday performances), Michael Paul Levin (Inspector Cramer), Don Maloney (Pat Degan/Morgue Attendant), Am'Ber Montgomery (Dol Bonner/Suki Molloy), Jim Pounds (Fritz/Tom Irwin), Paul Reyburn (Albert Breyer/Ralph Arkoff), E.J. Subkoviak (Nero Wolfe), Marisa B. Tejeda (Delia Brandt/Rita Arkoff), Austene Van (Mrs. Herrold/Franny Irwin/Mrs. Arbuthnot).

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